Category Archives: Some Thoughts

Humble Pie For Economic Science

Starting from a reflection on the absence of satisfactory post-crisis economic corrective measures and on the strong disparities between the exponents of the principal economic theories, this article proposes two lines of thought regarding the complex question: “Why has economic science been unable to predict and respond to the crisis?”




[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ive years on from the onset of the 2008 crisis the western world has not managed to propose a decisive economic political model. The economic debate has been heated, even stimulating, yet inconclusive and confused.

Restricting the summary of the debate to the Italian situation, it is shown that whilst Germany and the ECB supported and sponsored Mario Monti’s politics of austerity, Gustavo Piga keenly sought to explain its relative recessive character: it was not adapted to reduce the public debt/GDP ratio, and Wolfgang Münchau wrote in the Financial Times “Why Monti is not the right man to lead Italy.” Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi are also discordant voices, maintaining that the error does not lie with the politics of austerity per se, but the way in which it has been implemented: spending needed to be cut rather than taxes raised. The orchestra of soloists has a single shared score, sadly titled ‘The worst has passed but the recovery will be slow.’ In the meantime, the European Central Bank has stated that rates of unemployment have reached previously unprecedented levels in 2013, whilst Bankitalia has announced that the GDP will fall by 1% over the course of this year.

Why has economic science been unable to predict and respond to the crisis? This question is obviously complex. The present article limits itself to give two widely overlooked responses within the debate which, in the opinion of the writer of this article are, however, fundamental. The first response is structural, insofar as it concerns the essence of economic science itself and its characteristics. The second conversely makes reference to a relatively recent and hopefully correctable phenomenon.

1. Whether we like it or not, the predictive ability of economic models is limited. Fornino notes that economic sciences, unlike natural sciences, interact with their object of study, thus impairing their accuracy in the moment in which implemented predictions direct agents’ choices. If for example, proving by contradiction, an economic model were able to predict the exact trend of every variable of interest, all the economic agents would want to profit from the informative advantage and would sell or buy according to the expected price. It would, however, be the very same shared and simultaneous action of all the agents to make the predictions inexact. Furthermore, due to practical and ethical reasons, often it is not possible for economic science to test its own models through appropriate experiment: would an experiment aimed at assessing the effects of a politics of austerity be conceivable?   

2. Secondly, a growing separation has developed between political decisions and economic science. Research centres produce countless abstract studies, where in several cases the greatest contribution is to be found in the possibility of the insertion of a new publication in the author’s curriculum vitae. The debate between economists often culminates in fierce discussion on topics unknown to most, to justify the variable instrumental choice, or to discuss the dataset, or even the ways to evade potential endogeneity problems. Citing Dani Rodrik on this matter:

“Professors at the top universities distinguish themselves today not by being right about the real world, but by devising imaginative theoretical twists or developing novel evidence. If these skills also render them perceptive observers of real societies and provide them with sound judgment, it is hardly by design.”

On the contrary, in the recent Italian electoral campaign the central theme of economic politics to be implemented following the crisis has been marginal, and the opinions of several of the most influential parties have been elusive, to say the least. Let us be clear, the problem is not the empirical research in itself, or the data or the techniques used. The problem arises in the degree to which technique and technicalities precede ideas of economic politics. The few ideas in circulation remain marginal in the political debate due to their abstruse or politically inconvenient nature.

Historically, above all in periods of post-crisis, politics has found its primary ally in economic science. To support Roosevelt’s New Deal there had been Keynesian economic politics, whilst the influence of Fridmaniano’s economic thinking and the Chicago school on the choices of the British government under Margaret Thatcher and of the US government under Ronald Reagan is evident. Today, unprecedented western macro-problems, linked primarily to financial and labour markets, are affiliated with the old ideological clash between neo-Keynesians and neo-Classicists, as well as a little-appreciated, severe and aristocratic academic debate.

One of the few positive aspects of the economic crisis, as recalled by Monacelli, is that it conveys to us the complexity of understanding economic problems, which is essential and requires a capacity for extensive analysis. In the light of this, due to the recent failures of economic science and its own incapacity to provide and communicate comprehensive responses to the crisis, I believe that a slice of humble pie is required.

Returning to the two proposed responses, the pressing necessity for post-crisis economic corrective measures renders only the first still sustainable. The limits of the economic models are, indeed, structural, and economic science has reached sufficient maturity to recognise and address the practical and ethical shortcomings which characterise it. Rodrik, for example, confirms that the economy, unlike natural sciences, rarely produces definitive results, as every economic reasoning is contextual. All economic propositions are “if-then.” Consequently, understanding which remedy would function best in a particular context is a craft rather than an exact science.

I believe however, passing to the second reflection, that today like never before it is necessary for the economy to return to its direction of political-governmental choices. Accordingly, it is fundamental to preserve correct and scientifically valid methodologies, to not lose ourselves in useless attempts at academic elegance and to remember to construct the means, rather than the end. Krugman maintains that the problem does not rest with economic theory, but rather with economic politics; the undersigned would add that the problem lies in the manifest incapacity for dialogue between the two.


Original Article: Un bagno d’umiltà per la scienza economica

Translated by Lois Bond 

Photo credit: infomatique

What Germany should do about Salafism

Salafism is a challenge to German society. Groups that support or incite violence should fall within the responsibility of law enforcement, while those groups that stick to missionary activities might be an issue for society and normal politics and should be handled accordingly with the help of information programs and education.




[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Federal Office for the Protection of the Consitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service, estimated for 2011 that about 3.800 people belonged to the Salafist movement in Germany. In addition, about 50 mosques are believed to subscribe to some form of Salafism although the BfV itself notes that this is only an estimate. Generally it is believed that this group is growing, however it is hard to come across more reliable numbers: since there is no Salafist “church” with registered members this will always be a challenge.

Salafism has different sub-groups that are more or less problematic. One of the major problems in the current debate in Germany is the lack of differentiation. Indeed, a difference lies between pious Salafists and more militant forms (lets call them Salafist-Jihadists). While the former pose a challenge on a social, political level only a fraction of the Salafist sphere in Germany subscribes to Jihadist thinking. This latter group is a potential threat to security. However, we also need to realize that “Jihadists” might be interested in becoming foreign fighters in e.g. Syria but would not commit terrorist attacks in Germany and not be a direct threat to the country.

Nevertheless, for historical reasons such a differentiation does not come natural to the German debate. In the German discourse exists the term “intellectual inciters” (geistige Brandstifter) and authorities tend to monitor and sanction them as well, through the BfV and other institutions. However, when it comes to government measures against radical Islamist groups such a differentiation might be crucial. Why is that? Well, Germany is a relative latecomer to this debate, given that the Salafist groups have spread over the country rather recently since ca. 2002. In the UK there has been a debate on whether pious Salafist groups might act as an ideological firewall against Jihadism or whether they actually provided the ideological underpinning for such activities. I personally believe that we lack empirically reliable evidence to make a decision for one of the two positions. It might very well be true that more activist individuals seek out pious Salafist groups to satisfy their radicalism but they move on because those are not radical enough. Such an assumption obviously blows in the face of the position currently held (German authorities have a couple of high class studies on this issue to which the public has no access, sadly).

Germany, on the one hand side has suppressed violent groups and groups it believed to incite violence (as displayed by frequent arrests and raids). On the other hand, it has started a dialogue with the wider Muslim community (that seems however stalling at the moment). The fact that since 2001 there has only been one successful Islamist inspired terrorist attack in Germany is the proof that authorities must be doing something right. Anyway, the level of care in dealing with the Salafist movement should be kept high, otherwise one might cause the radicalisation one wants to prevent. Groups that support or incite violence should fall within the responsibility of law enforcement, while those groups that stick to missionary activities might be an issue for society and normal politics and should be handled accordingly with the help of information programs and education (as well as kept under some surveillance: in the past Jihadist networks have formed in the proximity of these groups). On the individual level I believe Germany has expertise from the handling of sects to helping people that are willing to leave a group: those measures and efforts have been revealed to be effective.


Photo Credit: Ahmadtal3t

Reporting the Steubenville Rape Case

If we want to change rape culture, media coverage needs to change too.


White doves flying innocent


On the night of 11th of August 2012, in Steubenville, Ohio, a 16 year old girl, too drunk to resist, was dragged from party to party and repeatedly raped over a period of hours by two 16 year old boys before being dumped on a lawn and urinated on. Photos and videos of her sexual assault were taken and shared online. A video of one of the perpetrators released online by hacker group Anonymous in December 2012 showed him referring to this 16 year old girl as ‘deader than Trayvon Martin’ and ‘deader than OJ’s wife’. On Sunday, 17th March 2013, these boys were found guilty.

One would hope, then, that the reporting of this case would focus on the search for justice for this young girl who has had her life devastated by her rape and the subsequent trial. Since her rape was reported to police by her parents, this girl has lost her friends, been ostracised by her community and subjected to intimidation and death threats. On the 19th March, two teenage girls were arrested and charged with menacing the victim through Facebook and Twitter. Yet from the manner in which the main news outlets in the United States have reported on the trial and subsequent guilty verdict, you would not know this.

Instead, if you had watched CNN’s report from the day the verdict was handed down, you would know that the perpetrators of this attack were ‘star football players’, two young men with ‘promising futures’, ‘very good students’, whose lives had now fallen apart. The reporter stated that ‘alcohol was a huge part in this’, and wanted to know ‘what the lasting effect’ on two young men would be of being found guilty of rape in a juvenile court, describing the difficulty of watching the two sobbing as the verdict was read.

Had you watched ABC News, NBC, or USA Today, or read reports from the Associated Press or Yahoo News, you would have found more of the same – mentions of the boys’ ‘promising football careers’, ‘the pride of Steubenville’, with the victim described as ‘drunken’ and ‘intoxicated’. All reports gave the impression that these boys lives had been ruined, all promise ended, as soon as the guilty verdict was handed down. The victim of the assault was barely awarded a mention amongst the laments for the lives of these two boys. One comment from ABC’s show ‘20/20’ described the juvenile trial as ‘a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world’ – essentially saying that it’s okay to rape, just don’t take photos whilst you do it.

If anyone needed an example of the prominence of rape culture in our society, the Steubenville case is it. It can be found in almost every aspect of the case – in the photos taken during the attack and the videos made afterward by those who did it, as mementos and a celebration of their own viciousness; in the attempted cover-up by leading figures in the town (the attempted cover-up will now be subject to a Grand Jury investigation); in the shaming and shunning of the victim; in the reporting of the trial, which seemed to say that boys shouldn’t rape not because it is wrong, because women are not pieces of meat to be dragged around as playthings but as people who should be respected, but because they might endanger their promising futures; but primarily in the fact that these boys apparently didn’t think that what they were doing is wrong, that it was normal, that plenty of people would do the same.

Is it any wonder, with a culture such as this, that more victims of rape don’t come forward, and that more rapes aren’t prosecuted? In Ireland, only 30% of those who approached the Rape Crisis Network went to the police. Between 2003 and 2009, 70% of rape cases allowed the defence to question the victim’s sexual history. 47% of cases resulted in acquittal. In the U.S., rape is the only crime in which the level of inebriation of the victim is taken into account as a mitigating factor. Of every one hundred reported rapes, only nine will be prosecuted, with just five resulting in felony convictions. An estimated 90,000 women and 10,000 men are raped in the United States every year. In the United Kingdom, the attrition rate for rape cases is 12%, with a 58% conviction rate.

The recent ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ campaign, which originated in Alberta, Canada, and has been seen in a number of universities in the UK and Ireland carries the message ‘just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she’s saying yes’. This is something that needs a wider than university level audience. Everyone needs to be aware that silence does not equal consent, and rape is wrong. To most people, this is obvious – but unfortunately, for others, it is not. If we want to change rape culture, media coverage needs to change too.


Photo Credit: Muffet

The Impracti-cool Pandemic

Practicality is often the most cheap and simplistic means of going about things; the only reason it doesn’t sell to the masses is because it’s not practi-cool.


sequined fanny pack


“Why is your mobile phone broken?” I ask, as yet another person whips out their screen shattered iPhone. Not really, because the answer to that is pretty self-explanatory, so I skip to, “Why didn’t you buy a phone cover for your [ridiculously expensive] phone?” , but I already know the answer; practicality isn’t cool.

It took crack heads on booze cruises who kept losing their passport for fannypacks to become cool. Now you go to Ibiza and all the big boobied stars and their fans off the Only Way Is Essex are wearing them. Yet it seems like just yesterday that we refused to be seen with our dad as he strolled up and down the sea shore in his speedos wearing the infamous bumbag. Now they come in all sizes and colours, (the big boobied Essex stars like the shiny, sparkly ones…. naturally). Now I’m just waiting for Rihanna to start the socks and sandals swag in Barbados.

Fashion is amusing, but also infinitely exasperating. For years children were bullied for their giant spectacles. Now people poke the lenses out and wear in public those 3D glasses you get free from the cinema in a desperate attempt to achieve that ever-lusting, painfully ersatz ‘sexy nerd look’. They genuinely wear them in public!

Impractical fashion is in every way, essentially an embodiment of the risky shift phenomenon. People are not only willing, but going out of their way to buy, wear and use things which independently, they typically wouldn’t. They do this based on the idea that everybody else is buying, wearing and using these things, and this is because ultimately people are looking to fit in. The motivation to not stand out from the norm via means of fashion such as adopting the nerd look is insanely ironic, considering that is exactly why “geeks” and “nerds” are picked on in the first place. So you bully them in a corner, steal their lunch money and even stole their swag! You even have the nerve to steal their identity, as you walk around wearing a tight T-shirt claiming to be a GEEK. At the end of the day people simply prefer to do “what everybody else does” a lot of the time. Being at University means I get the enviable privilege of experiencing this all the time. And I mean ALL the time. As a social secretary for a sports club at uni, my job involves arranging fancy dress nights out. Take for instance the one I planned for January…

After less than a minute’s worth of research, I had discovered a cracking, original idea. Turns out the Romans called January after the God Janus, and he had two faces; one face looked back into the old year, and the other looked forward in to the new. Thus, the theme I decided was TWO FACE THEME. This would entail coming dressed as half one thing, half another. Only one person came dressed that night, and that’s because no one had told her everyone else had decided to boycott the idea. (If you’re interested, she came as half a nerd, half a slag). My brilliant idea had been slagged off and shat on, as the fellow sports members demanded I set a more conventional dress code – one that everyone does. “ARMY THEME” they said, “IT’S EASY”, they said. And because I don’t really give a shit, the sports night approaching will be army themed. Oh man, all the boys are going to look so hard. I might have to fornicate with every single one of them.

So phone cases aren’t in fashion, but  swingers are if you’re a hipster! Jeans rolled up to flash those pulled up socks…. That is, if you’re wearing any. Socks weren’t cool at one point.

There’s also the standard fashion impracticalities; we’re talking batty low riders – these are jeans purposefully worn bellow the bottom; sunglasses worn at night (I will never understand); vest tops that go out of their way to NOT cover men’s nipples or chests!

I remember in college and I’m pretty sure around university too, seeing girls carrying their books and stationary in bags of branded retail stores. You may choose to wear that shit ladies, but don’t subject your literature to the infamous darkness that is within Hollister! (Literal cold, smelly darkness).

Or how about this constant need to have the latest fads. Apple may as well advertise their products with the line “having our latest product is guaranteed to get you laid!“. This obsession with buying the latest technology is perfectly encapsulated by the Apple pandemic. They’ve created this ‘must need’ ideology and people are boldly buying in to it.

The irony of it all, is practicality is often the most cheap and simplistic means of going about things; the only reason it doesn’t sell to the masses is because it’s not practi-cool.


Photo Credit: ... Love Maeghan

Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”

Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God” is an exceptional dispassionate analysis of Hezbollah’s early and later years, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the organization or Lebanese history.


Hezbollah flag


Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”
Harvard University Press
ISBN 978-0-674-06651-9
Pages: 244

Hezbollah is a movement full of contradictions operating in a country that challenges mainstream Western perceptions of the Middle East. This is the group which has an acute awareness of new media and propaganda, creating a video game and museum surrounding the 2006 war with Israel along with agreeing to play paintball with a group Western journalists and researchers in 2011. The group has also been a suspected actor in attacks on Western targets, most notably the bus bombing in Bulgaria last July, an event which has resulted in recent pressure from Israel and the US for the group to be added to the EU’s designated terrorist list. The group has also been on the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997.

One of the first things done in Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourains’ book, Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”, is to state that they will be writing clearly about the organization. This means avoiding terms like ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’. For the authors engaging in the debate about what these terms mean (if anything), in an academic context, is neither useful or necessary.The authors brilliantly expose the contractions demonstrated by Hezbollah, summed up in this passage:

When the battles are few, the gap grows between the daily practice of its sympathizers and its discourse. That presents a Cornelian dilemma: the Hezbollah cannot call for an Islamic regime, which would run the risk of losing it allies and some its followers; it also cannot declare that such is not is long-term objective, since that would run the risk of acknowledging that the Islamic Republic of Iran did no inaugurate an era of “God’s government on earth” and that its fundamental structure is not superior to a liberal state, one that is pluralist to varying degrees.

The text is full of nuanced sections such as this. Presenting a fair, accurate, and compelling analysis of the Hezbollah. This is a welcome departure from the information typicallly disseminated by governments and journalists on the organization. The core question explored is how does an organization balance its revolutionary rhetoric with its responsibilities as a member of government.

One critique is of the book’s format. Part I includes 90 or so pages of Hezbollah history in three chapters from 1982-2009. Then the book shifts to 60 plus pages of reproducing Hezbollah documents in English, including the organization’s Political Charter of 2009 and the Open Letter of 1985. The authors then return to their own analysis for a concluding chapter. This is a difficult transition for the reader, from historical analysis, to primary sources, and then back to analysis. One wonders why the authors did not make their argument using quotes from primary sources in a narrative and then provide the primary sources in their entirety in an appendix.

Despite their odd placement, having a solid English translation of these documents in English is an extremely useful resource for the casual reader and researcher alike. In addition to primary source documents the authors have also included a lexicon, which is exceptional at demystifying terms that new researchers to the topic might not know (Adū) and  clarifying the meaning of terms readers may think that they know (Jihād). Two useful maps are located in the back of the text, including one showing the ethno-religious geography of Lebanon and the layout of Beirut. The text also includes a portraits section, detailing significant biographical information on the organization’s key actors. However the most useful supplementary material is the Organizational Chart of the Hezbollah detailing the political, social, and military wings of the party.

Despite its brevity (under 120 pages when not including the translated primary sources) the book feels quite dense. Some of this may be due to the fact that it was written in French and then translated to English by Jane Marie Todd. Practically his means that the text is a bit of a slog to get through, this is further exacerbated by the confusing shift to primary documents and then back to narrative discussed above. Despite these shortcomings, the book is an exceptional dispassionate analysis of Hezbollah’s early and later years and should be required reading for anyone interested in the organization or Lebanese history.


Photo Credit:  upyernoz

The Missile Next Door: How a Nuclear Arsenal Was Built in the American Heartland

The Missile Next Door gives light to the oft-forgotten story of the Minuteman Missile Program.


SF-88 Nike Hercules Missile


The Missile Next Door by Gretchen Heefner
Harvard University Press
ISBN 978-0-674-05911-5
Pages: 320

In the absorbing and intriguing The Missile Next Door Gretchen Heefner examines how, through the vagaries of history and geopolitics, isolated communities in the American West became the front lines in the Cold War, with over a thousand nuclear warheads stored in small farming towns across the American Heartland. Heefner guides readers through the history of the development, marketing, and distribution of the Minuteman missile – from the fears of a ‘missile gap’ in 1957 that led to increased federal funding for nuclear physicists to their eventual dismantling in 1993 – and in so doing she cogently argues that the American public has become economically “seduced by war”. The Missile Next Door serves as a case study of the military-industrial complex that overtook rural communities, even as many of those communities felt patriotic pride at the opportunity to help keep America safe. Though the Cold War was considered a war of ideologies, the actions taken in Great Plains region show just how much military brawn was available to back up ideological brains in Washington DC.

The Minuteman Missile was developed in the late 1950s as the streamlined version of the Titan missile. It was cost-effective (estimated cost of $1 million per warhead versus the Titan’s $20 million), and, most importantly used a solid fuel source, which meant it could safely be stored and fired from an underground, concrete-lined bunker. It was, as Heefner says, an “out of sight, out of mind” technology, which fit in perfectly with war of ideologies that the United States was engaged in. It was debuted to the public at the 1960 San Francisco Air Force Association Convention, heralding the start of a very successful marketing campaign in which the missile was sold to the public as a product that was necessary, safe, and most importantly, hidden from enemy intelligence. The ‘missile gap’ crisis outlined in National Intelligence Estimates in the late 1950s led Americans to believe that their safety depended on the production of more nuclear warheads. Eventually, 1,000 of these intercontinental ballistic missiles were buried in communities across the Great Plains.

After the Minuteman’s debut, local communities lobbied to bring Minuteman sites to their towns, knowing that the placement of a warhead would bring increased funding for roads, cheaper electricity and phone service, as well as construction jobs and more revenue for local businesses. On top of economic incentives, there was a patriotic incentive as well. Heefner argues that the West always saw itself as a ‘step-child’ of the federal government; to these communities, the honor of housing the Minuteman finally made them feel as if they were vital to American security. She also draws upon the cultural stereotype of Great Plains citizens as adventurous, stubborn, hard-working isolationists who descended from the tough settlers of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, Colorado, and Missouri. To local citizens with this mindset, the program was seen as cost-effective, and the least intrusive way for them to contribute to national security.

While the wider Great Plains community may have welcomed the arrival of the Minuteman, there was resistance from local farmers who had concerns regarding crop yield and the effect underground warheads would have on their farmland. But the biggest complaint from the farmers was the prices they were being offered for the land, which they considered inadequate. These concerns culminated in a grassroots effort by South Dakota farmers, started in 1961, called the Missile Area Landowners Association (MALA), which forged an alliance between farmers who were not opposed to the missile program per se, but felt that their questions regarding the Minuteman were not being addressed by the government.

Opposition to the Minuteman missile sites was not restricted to MALA. In 1988 peace activists dressed as clowns hopped the fences that surrounded each site, hung banners, planed seeds, and laid pictures of children on the missile lid. Other opponents chose milder forms of protest, such as helping map out where all Minuteman silos were located, protesting along military truck routes, refusal to buy from corporations who support the military, and by holding weekend retreats for fellow pacifists.

Heefner highlights the rich irony of the saga of the Minuteman Program with subtle cynicism. The story gives insight into how Americans viewed the Cold War, and points out that wars fought ‘elsewhere’ may come at a high financial cost for the government, but large portions of the population remained detached from those costs. The book is a helpful reminder that the Cold War did indeed affect the lives of Americans, especially those outside of urban areas – places that the majority of Americans considered to be ‘elsewhere’.

I found it particularly interesting when Heefner examines the co-option of the Revolutionary War rhetoric in the Cold War context. The name Minuteman evokes the Revolutionary War, a symbol of pride and patriotism for many Americans, specifically the third amendment to the American Constitution which states that “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner”. For Heefner, the use of Revolutionary War imagery to sell the missile is evidence that the Air Force essentially forced the program on the Great Plains population.

Though the Cold War ended more than twenty years ago, the remnants of the Minuteman program are still evident in the Great Plains region. While all of the bunkers have been destroyed by the Air Force and Army Corps of Engineers, local economies that were reliant on military spending in local businesses and for infrastructure development have been slow to recover. Heefner ends her work with an examination of the fight to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota active in 2005. While Ellsworth topped the Pentagon’s list of possible closures as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) review, Governor Mike Rounds’ argued that the loss of Ellsworth would devastate not only the local economy, but also that of South Dakota, which had not developed suitable economic alternatives. By focusing on this episode, Heefner is highlighting rural American’s dependency on defense. Instead of working to reduce this dependency, Heefner argues persuasively that residents are “determined to enshrine their own Pentagon ties…not because of the national security imperative, but because of money”.

Heefner’s unique and insightful work would be useful for anyone interested in American history, nuclear warfare and nonproliferation, and the relationship between economic development and federal defense spending.


Photo Credit: bhautik joshi

The Morality Of Zero Dark Thirty

Do filmmakers have any obligation to portray historic events, or those with acute political sensitivity, in either an entirely accurate or morally responsible manner?


torture protest sign


The Academy Awards rarely pass without some form of controversy, often involving the threat of unilateral prank action by Sacha Baron Cohen. Yet not since Michael Moore’s blustering anti-Bush rant in 2003 has the controversy been so overtly political in nature. Katherine Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, an intelligence-centred thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has been attacked by both sides of the American political spectrum. Its release date was postponed until after the US general election due to accusations that it effectively served as pro-Obama propaganda. But such claims were tepid compared with the ongoing furore surrounding the film’s depiction of torture.

In a letter to the head of the film’s production house, Sony Pictures, a trio of US senators called upon the producers to ‘consider correcting the impression’ that torture helped find bin Laden. The senators included the chairs of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein respectively, along with former presidential candidate John McCain, himself a victim of torture. These people have a greater knowledge of the efficacy of torture than most, partly owing to their recent involvement in an investigation into the US programme of ‘enhanced interrogation’ which occurred under George W. Bush. But are their criticisms warranted? Does the film actually suggest that torture led to bin Laden’s door? And if so, do its makers have any real obligation to portray things differently?

As a fan of director Bigelow’s work, particularly ‘The Hurt Locker’ which earned her the first ever Oscar for a female director, I was very keen to see how she would portray the bin Laden hunt. However, having spent several months last year researching the utility of torture as an intelligence gathering tool for my Masters dissertation, I was especially sensitive to the accusations made against the film. During my research, I found that judging the utility of the US enhanced interrogation techniques is essentially impossible: With little documentary evidence available for such a recent programme, judgements on utility are necessarily based on the weighing of claim versus counterclaim, claims which possess an almost entirely partisan colouring. Indeed, there is little consensus even among those with direct experience of the programme. Senators Feinstein and Levin have claimed that no vital information was gleaned through the interrogation programme, but notably, Republicans have refused to contribute to their investigation, and have dismissed its findings as partial and prejudiced. Therefore, no matter the judgement taken in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, it was always likely to face a measure of political opposition.

My interpretation of the portrayal made by the movie is that it shows enhanced interrogation techniques as part of the wider operation to track down the world’s most wanted man. At no point does it conclusively state that torture produced vital information, yet it certainly does imply that it helped soften up detainees so that more cooperative approaches became effective. It should be pointed out that the plot is somewhat convoluted, perhaps reflecting the actual process by which the Abbottabad compound was located, so tracking the actual path of causation between ‘Intelligence Gathering Tool A’ and ‘Vital Information B’ is far from straightforward. Nevertheless, the impression I was left with was that torture did play some sort of role. The trio of senators, in their letter to the studio and elsewhere, have insisted that torture played absolutely no role whatsoever in identifying the courier who eventually led to bin Laden. Clearly, they may well have been privy to information which conclusively shows torture to have been fruitless. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, meanwhile, claims that its portrayal is based upon accounts of those involved in the actual events depicted. The danger highlighted in the senators’ letter is that any indication that torture produced useful intelligence could be taken by audiences as an endorsement, and therefore could lead to a softening of attitudes towards torture in the US.

I sympathise with this view, but I believe that any such effect would likely be mitigated by the severity of the measures depicted in the film, which clearly falls short of anything resembling endorsement. It is for this reason that my sympathy for the senators’ concerns does not extend to those of Naomi Wolf, who recently likened Katherine Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, the pioneering German filmmaker who acted as a propagandist for the Nazi party. At worst, Bigelow’s approach was insensitive to the risk that anything short of utter condemnation could be taken as endorsement. She is not, as Wolf insists, an apologist for torture.

Of course, all of this begs the question of whether filmmakers have any obligation to portray historic events, or those with acute political sensitivity, in either an entirely accurate or morally responsible manner. I have already acknowledged the risk that certain scenes in the film could be taken as suggesting that torture helped lead toward vital intelligence, although the film does not contain an outright assertion that torture produced information. But the fact is that filmmakers are not responsible for calibrating the moral compasses of their audiences. Caution is certainly advisable when relating politically sensitive events, and the accusation that Bigelow has exercised insufficient caution in her portrayal of torture has been widespread. But to suggest that she has the duty to utterly condemn any role of torture is mistaken. Based on my research, I believe that torture, even when it produces useful information, will always prove to be strategically counterproductive, due to the seemingly inevitable escalation of its use, the inflaming of the terrorist target, and the loss of support among constituents and allies. Nothing shown in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ contradicts this view. But even if it did, it is up to audiences to draw their own conclusions on the moral issues raised. Even the ending of the film, despite its familiarity, raises questions which cast any moral certainty surrounding the killing of bin Laden into harsh relief.


Photo Credit: Fibonacci blue

Biogas: The Fourth Generation Fuel

As long as there is life, there will always be biogas.


Biogas lamp kabul


There are numerous debates on Europe’s energy security and fears of over dependence on Russia’s gas imports. The most popular fear is that Russia is increasingly imposing its energy imperialism onto Europe via its bilateral deals with EU countries. As a result Europe is increasingly looking to renewable energy in order to increase energy security and foster local renewable businesses and innovation. That said most renewables are known to be intermittent, expensive and unreliable. However recent improvements in biogas generation by the Berkerley Lab in the US, have proven that biogas may become the best energy option among for the future.

As long as there is life, there will always be biogas. Biogas is not the same as natural gas or shale gas. It is a renewable energy coming from fermenting plant, animal and human waste. The process of rotting creates methane, which then can be burnt as gas straight away, converted to electricity or stored and transported in large gas canisters. The benefits of this process are three fold: It can provide a solution to sanitation as it uses the abundance of wastewater and rotting foods a community produces. Anaerobic digestion produces both a renewable fuel source- methane as well as turning the organic waste into nitrogen rich fertilizer. In a time when topsoil is being destroyed by intensive agricultural processes, this fertilizer can be sold on as a more organic alternative to chemical fertilizers. These anaerobic digesters can also be scaled down to serve small and remote agricultural communities that desperately need solutions to sanitation, energy and improved crop yields.

What is unique about the innovations in microgrid technology called FuelCell Energy by the Berkeley Lab at the University of Wisconsin is that it can ‘seamlessly disconnect itself from the grid and function as an island and then reconnect.’ These energy batteries are run by cells that generate constant energy 24/7, while being very low in emissions, quiet, and more efficient than any other energy source. After a decade of research, the lab has invented these Fuelcells that provide biogas to large buildings like hotels, universities and prisons. Most recently, FuelCell is planning to provide biogas from wastewater to power the Microsoft labs in Wyoming. The US Department of Defense is already interested in this clean energy, which would also provide energy security as the cells can work completely independently. The US’s recent developments in biogas have a lot to teach Europe.

The Supergrid is the most recent example of Europe’s increasing efforts to become more energy interconnected. It has constructed a large undersea network of cables in order to best exploit each country’s renewable energy capabilities. The Supergrid’s goal is to be “the electricity transmission backbone of Europe’s decarbonised power sector”. When asked whether it’s view on biogas’s potential in Europe Paola Testini, the assistant to the Supergrid’s CEO, said, ‘We do not have any specific info on the best sources of biogas in Europe.’ If as Climate Action Network Europe claims that ‘the EU is the world leader in renewable energy technology’ then it surely should not ignore the hottest topic in the renewables industry – innovations in biogas.

It is not clear why this innovation is not being debated in Europe’s mainstream media. It is not the first time that Europe has fallen behind America in renewable energy solutions. To this day, there is no large- scale CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology in Europe, whilst the US and Canada have two large CCS projects underway that should be operational in 2014. Despite Europe having stringent Renewable energy goals up until 2020 Europe has started using more coal, while America uses shale gas. Paradoxically, coal is replacing gas in Europe as coal has plummeted in price since the advent of shale gas in order to maintain utility companies’ profits.

The good news is that UK has established the first Green Bank in the world, which is ‘intended to invest in innovative, environmentally- friendly areas for which there is a lack of support from markets’, unfortunately ‘business investment is at historic lows in Europe as firms worry about the lack of demand’, according to the Centre for European Reform. That said, some of Europe’s green businesses investments are paying off. A study by VedoGreen analysed 113 green companies on the European stock markets and the data showed a 7% increase in turnover in the first six months of 2012.

The global biogas market is forecasted to hit $33.1 billion by 2022, up from $17.3 billion in 2011. The World Economic Forum has forecasted that $36 billion of public funding is needed to deal with climate change and to avoid these challenges affecting the global economy. Berkley’s FuelCell has shown that biogas will probably shape the political economy of natural resources and will be the preferred solution for the future of energy. During a recent telephone interview with Gustav Grob, the president of the International Clean Energy Consortium, he said that biogas will be ‘the fourth generation fuel, which will replace all fossil fuels. It is a universal fuel for energy’. It is not clear why this message is being suppressed by the media or whether vested interests in other energy markets would prefer this to be kept under wraps. The next step would be to progress the economic research on the potential of biogas and promote this most sustainable and abundant fuel throughout Europe.


Photo Credit: sustainable sanitation

The Life & Significance of a Cautious Jihadi

Jan Raudszus’ thoughts on Joas Wagemakers’ A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.


Searching for the Taliban in Kandahar Province


A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi by Joas Wagemakers
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9781107606562
Paperback: £18.99

Let’s get right to the point: this is a book about Islamist theology, it is not a book for the lay reader. Only few people have ever heard of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and know of his relevance in contemporary Islamist writing. Yet relevant he is: according to a study by the Counter Terrorism Centre at West Point, Maqdisi is one of the most important scholars in Islamist militant circles. Jarret Brachman in his authoritative 2009 book Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice devoted several pages to a short biography of him in a section on important Salafist ideologues. In connection with the ideological developments in Saudi Arabia, Stephane Lacroix in his acclaimed recent book discussed Maqdisi’s role as well. Now, Joas Wagemakers presents a comprehensive and detailed overview of Maqdisi’s life and ideology. Wagemakers comes with credentials; he interviewed Maqdisi himself, as well as, students of Maqdisi, Arab journalists, former cellmates, and friends. His large access to primary sources is something not all authors can claim.

The book is based on Wagemakers’ PhD thesis that was supervised by Harald Motzki and Roel Meijir, hence, at times has the feeling of a reworked thesis. While this sometimes makes it awkward to read, it comes with the benefit of high transparency and rigour we would expect from a piece of academic writing. An additional advantage is that the text is supplemented with background information giving the less well-versed reader the chance to understand the difficult ideological concepts and their relevance, though some sections remain challenging for readers not trained in Islamic sciences. Helpfully, Wagemakers provides a very good and comprehensive summary of the major points of each chapter at the end of the book. Wagemakers also draws on Arabic, English, French and German sources which gives the text additional depth.

The core question of the book is: Why has al-Maqdisi been so influential on the Jihadi-Salafi movement? To answer it Wagemakers has researched which important Islamist scholars mention and cite al-Maqdisi. After establishing his degree of influence, Wagemakers uses framing theory to identify those aspects of Maqdisi’s work that served as good frames and tested the validity of his results through interviews. Wagemakers uses the introduction to set the stage. He gives an overview of Salafism, its history and different branches. Furthermore, he critically discusses the dominant categorizations of Quintan Wiktorowicz, who divided Salafis into three types: the quietists (or purists), who focus on propagating the Salafi creed and shy away from participation in politics; the politicos who engage in debate and the political process; and the jihadis. Wagemakers calls this breakdown too schematic and points out that some ideologues – like Maqdisi – transcend the categories, hence Wagemaker designates Maqdisi as a “quietist Jihadi.”

In Part I of his book Wagemakers offers a biography of Maqdisi who was born in 1959 into a Palestinian family. They left the West Bank for Kuwait when he was just a few years old and despite being Palestinian he never felt close to the Palestinian national call but instead became affiliated with Islamist circles. He finally ended up in Saudi Arabia, where he – in his own words- became “a real Salafi” while studying at the University of Medina (even though he never was an official student). Maqdisi utilized the Wahabist doctrine as a tool for excommunication against what he perceived to be heretical Muslim rulers. He travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Sovjets but ended up teaching and spreading his ideas among the Mujahideen instead. Here he made the acquaintance of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Suri but never became a member of AQ. More importantly he met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The two men were significantly different, Maqdisi the studious educated man and al-Zarqawi a rough man of action, but joined forces in Jordan after Maqdisi was forced out of Kuwait in 1991. They founded a group of followers critical of the Jordanian government and were arrested after a foiled attack on Israel. In prison ideological differences between the two men became apparent. Those differences were at the core of the famous criticism that Maqdisi aimed at his former companion who was fighting in Iraq at the time. Maqdisi has been released and imprisoned by Jordanian authorities several times of the past decade and is currently incarcerated.

Wagemakers places Maqdisi in the wider context of Islamist scholars but makes clear that he is most concerned with a justification for Jihad against rulers based on their lack of devotion to Sharia law. He is cautious when it comes to justifying attacks on civilians or even whole populations and has also criticised the current Jihadis for being good at attacking the enemy but bad at consolidating power. Nevertheless, he has expressed positive views about 9/11 and Usama bin Laden. What becomes clear is that Maqdisi’s position is hard to press into simple schemes of Salafism in which many today like to categorize the ideology.

Part II deals with his influence on the development of the Islamic opposition in Saudi Arabia, especially Maqdisi’s important influence on al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. Part III investigates al-Maqdisi’s crucial contribution to the concepts of al-wala wa-l-bara (loyalty and disavowal) and al-isti’ana bi-l-kuffar (the injunction on asking non-Muslims for help in a time of war). Part IV analyses Maqdisi’s role within the Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi community between 1992 and 2009.

The book is definitely not for the casual reader, the subject is not easily accessible despite Wagemakers’ best efforts. However, people with a passion for Islamist ideology, an interest in Islamist inspired violence, or a training in Islamic studies will find the book a useful resource and a worthy addition to their library.


Photo Credit: isafmedia

Yes, Americans Can Agree On Gun Control

While we may always have to deal with gun violence in this country, many steps can be made to substantially improve our violence detection and prevention measures.


vintage guns western


As the United States recovers from a devastating string of mass shootings at the end of 2012, including the killing of 20 children and 6 adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Americans have renewed their demand on Congress to find ways of reducing gun violence.

Vice President Joe Biden is leading a working group that is searching for measures that are broader and more comprehensive than simply reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, according to the Washington Post. The work group is looking at measures backed by key law enforcement, such as requiring universal background checks for firearm buyers and strengthening mental health checks.  The group will present its findings this month.

President Barack Obama has said he is open to any suggestions on how to reduce gun violence, although in the past he expressed doubtfulness over the successful passage of any new gun control legislation.

“When there is an extraordinarily heartbreaking tragedy like the one we saw, there’s always an outcry immediately after for action. And there’s talk of new reforms, and there’s talk of new legislation,” Obama said in a speech before the National Urban League last July following the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  “And too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expounded on Obama’s stance on gun control.

“He believes that we can enhance the enforcement of existing laws by making it more difficult for those who should not have weapons under existing laws … to obtain weapons,” Carney said.

He noted that President Obama supports the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004, but said he wants to focus on strengthening background checks “given the stalemate in Congress.”

The crux of our problem is that the national discussion on this subject has been dominated by a virulent stream of rhetoric.  Both sides try to smother any perspective different from their own, by starting petitions to deny people their legal rights, ridiculing opposing arguments, intentionally skewing the facts, and so on.

But any attempt at widening the divide between the two sides of this issue is just wasting our precious time.  To make matters worse, the solutions that our members of Congress offer or don’t offer tend to reflect a polarized side of the debate – either we get proposed bills for very strict gun control, which reliably fail to pass in Congress, or else our lawmakers throw up their hands as if there are no solutions to be found.

There have been 19 mass shootings in the past five years but no federal action has been taken in that time.  Over the next few months, lawmakers will prioritize federal spending and debt and soon our collective attention could again be pulled away from the gun violence issue.  Before we know it, we might forget that Congress has failed to institute any solutions on firearms violence.  Until we’re faced with yet another horrific tragedy that reminds us of our inaction…

It is essential to understand and respect that citizens sitting on the two sides of this debate have very different ideological viewpoints and in that regard there will be no changing of minds.  One side believes that owning weapons is the one sure way of preventing or combating gun violence, while the other side believes the very presence of firearms dramatically increases the possibility of violence.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that both sides of this debate want to reduce gun violence in America.

To find middle ground, we must get as far away from the issue of gun ownership as possible and instead search for options that focus on the people who create violent situations.

Community Programs for Reducing Violence from Firearms

Communities can choose to replicate program models that are statistically proven to dramatically reduce gun violence.

Cure Violence, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, has been very successful in the U.S. and around the world in its use of “detection” of potential escalations in violence and then an “interruption” of that violence through the use of a well-trained and highly skilled “interrupter” who uses an established set of methods to curb gun violence.

According to a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a 2009 study by the National Institute of Justice, the Cure Violence model has successfully helped over a dozen neighborhoods in Chicago and Baltimore to significantly reduce gun violence in their communities.  The findings in the Johns Hopkins study of four historically violent neighborhoods show in one neighborhood killings reduced 56% and shootings 34%. In another neighborhood killings reduced 53%, and in two other neighborhoods, shootings reduced 34 and 43%.  The Cure Violence model is now being replicated in cities across the nation and around the world.

Considering that the rights of gun owners and would-be gun owners come under attack every time there is a highly publicized shooting, the National Rifle Association has good reason and plenty of resources to financially support programs like Cure Violence.  The NRA could also develop its own program to reduce gun violence, which could easily be offered nationwide through its many offices situated across the country.

Containing the Mentally Ill and Violent

Each mass shooting contains an element of horror that is incomprehensible to most, leading many to believe that the mass shooters were mentally ill.  Our government’s work following these types of shootings reflects this belief, such as the passage of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIIS) that followed the shooting at Virginia Tech and Vice President Biden’s current work on improving mental health checks.

Given the extraordinarily high amount of young people carrying out the mass shootings, it seems prudent to focus mental health problem detection on them.  Berndattte Melnyk of Ohio State University notes that “approximately one out of 4 children, teens and college youth have a mental health problem, yet less than 25% get any treatment whatsoever at all.”

One option for addressing this concern is to create a national marketing campaign particularly geared toward parents and youth to educate them on mental health resources, perhaps providing a web site that contains more information on local mental health resources for teens and college age adults.  The campaign might also encourage the use of mental health services by presenting them in a welcoming and non-judgmental way.

Certainly we must continue to get better at bridging the gap between learning that someone is mentally ill and potentially violent and keeping weapons out of their hands.  The psychiatrist treating James Holmes, the mass shooter in Aurora, Colorado, reportedly rejected an offer by police to place Holmes on a 72-hour psychiatric hold after she contacted them to report her concern that Holmes could become violent.

Though she rejected the offer of a psychiatric hold, should the campus police have required the psychiatrist to get a second psychiatric opinion before making a final decision on the hold?  Should the campus police have alerted the Aurora police department so that they could have decided whether to open an investigation of Holmes? Such situations merit a closer look at police protocols when they receive notice from a mental health professional that a mentally unstable and potentially violent person is on the loose.

Active Shooter Training

The heroes of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting remind us of the importance of clear thinking in such extreme circumstances.  Some teachers and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School put children in closets and bathrooms when they heard the gun shots.  Some evacuated the children from the building.

One person turned on the school’s public address system.

“I think whoever did that saved a lot of people,” said Theodore Varga, a fourth grade teacher at Sandy Hook who was inside the building when the shooting occurred.  Varga had quickly left the building through an emergency exit but returned to help three other teachers escape through a window.

While we’d all like to believe we would react bravely in similar circumstances, the reality is that many of us would naturally become paralyzed with fear, shock and disbelief.  To overcome this natural reaction, a practical training program for dealing with this kind of situation could help.  It’s called Active Shooter Training, which is training normally reserved for police officers responding to a mass shooting.  But programs offered by the Otterbein University Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and others provide similar training for anyone who might find themselves in a situation where there is an active shooter in the vicinity.

The counter-attack and evasion trainings in general show participants how to identify what is happening, then to ID weapons, escape routes, and tactics.

The Otterbein University program encourages others to treat this type of training just as we do fire preparedness training by incorporating it into normal training offered in the workplace and in schools.  The idea is to stop being in denial over whether this situation is possible to occur, accept this training as part of emergency protocols, take charge and be prepared.

In conclusion, these options are not necessarily meant to replace measures that would directly control the sale and possession of firearms but rather to demonstrate that we can actually reduce gun violence without treading upon people’s deeply-held beliefs about gun ownership.

While we may always have to deal with gun violence in this country, we can substantially improve our violence detection and prevention measures.  We can empower ourselves through various training programs.  And, above all, we can collaborate with even seemingly opposite sides to find effective, long-term solutions.


Photo Credit: Mikejmartelli

A Blow for Big Brother! Military Grade Encryption on your Smartphone

A sharp blade is often used to save lives as well as to take them.


big brother is watching graffiti


Just how secure do you want your communications to be? Well, if you’re Phil Zimmermann then being “able to whisper in your ear, even if your ear is a thousand miles away” is a good place to start. That’s the message Silent Circle is touting with their latest communications package that promises to offer protection from “powerful criminal and political use of your personal information,” and at the most basic level, our right to privacy.

This bold smartphone package brings to the masses an ability to communicate video, SMS, audio, and other data with what is widely acknowledged as military grade encryption. With interesting additions such as a timed ‘burn notice’ (think “this message will self-destruct”, without all the hassle of a burning plastic and tape), and a technophobe friendly interface, this app appears to be writing the book on spy-proofing for dummies.

So who is this application targeting, and is it a step too far for the common marketplace? Well according to Silent Circle, the garden variety toddler knows how to use a smartphone, computer, or tablet, and “the average 16 year old knows basic hacking techniques”. This slight tendency towards scare tactics aside, I think most people will agree that the potential for criminal, government, and media entities to rifle through our (occasionally) dirty and often personal cyber laundry is far from limited. In all seriousness, this app along with PGP before it, will likely generate huge interest among free speech and privacy activists worldwide.

So what makes this kind of communication so secure? Running a peer-to-peer encryption system means that when your device connects to another, it will create a unique ‘cryptographic key agreement’. What’s more interesting is that following a communication, this key will be wiped from both devices creating an almost unbreakable level of security. This raises an interesting point about Silent Circles ethos. As a non-governmental organisation working for “citizens of the world”, Silent Circle has made a choice to remove all internal access to your communications. Essentially what this means is that they don’t hold any of the keys, and are in turn, unable to access your data. Sounds intriguing…

To prove this point, Silent Circle moved many of their operating servers out of the US, where the CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) would require them to create ‘backdoor’ access should the government require surveillance of an individual or group. If requested Silent Circle could be obligated to hand over what little data they might have, such as the payment and contact details of a client, however a 3rd party purchasing system offers yet another tier of anonymity. In a statement Co-Founder Mike Janke has said “We won’t be held hostage. All of us would rather shut Silent Circle down than ever allow a backdoor or be bullied into an ‘or else’ position.”

Despite these bold statements from Silent Circle, there is still a level of skepticism emanating from global privacy gurus. For the security savvy, the first step towards trusting this new network will only begin once the products become open sourced. In this case open sourcing will allow consumers (with the expertise) to evaluate claims of security and productivity. According to Nadim Kobeissi, a security research and developer, until Silent Circle permit open source access to the software they will be working against the grain of “responsible methods of cryptography software development.” Unfortunately this point may mark a fatal pitfall for Phil Zimmermann’s software. Whilst impressive, until it moves out of the realm of proprietary security software, it cannot be viewed as a suitable replacement for current methods of encryption. Only time will tell whether Zimmermann and the Silent Circle group will adhere to the traditional method of security practice. It’s a strange irony that Silent Circles Achilles heel may be that it will not trust it’s users to confirm it’s trust in them.

I think it’s too early to tell whether this software will become popular in the common marketplace, and critics will almost certainly jump toward claims of potential abuse. I’m not sure if I can make a valid judgement on the balance of privacy v.s. misuse. I will let more suitable minds battle over the risk of this kind of consumer software becoming a tool for terrorism, crime, and malevolence. However to get the ball rolling I’ll leave you with this fact: a sharp blade is often used to save lives and well as take them.


Photo Credit: Julian Haler

Deadly Media Manipulation

An innocent joke may have preceded a fatal incident, but ultimately the only cruel trick being played here, is by the media.


paparazzi camera media


Earlier this week one life was taken, whilst two more have subsequently been sentenced to endless abuse and the pressure to endure guilty charges.

On Tuesday 4th December, an innocent prank call was made by Australian 2Day FM radio hosts, Michael Christian and Mel Greig to the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge had been staying. The fact that a hoax call had been made reached the news very quickly; the hospital had allowed confidential information about the Duchess’s medical conditions to be shared with the radio hosts, and was consequently under scrutiny. Three days later, the nurse who had answered the hoax call, Jacintha Saldanha, was discovered dead, by suicide.

A media storm erupted, as the headlines screamed Hoax nurse ‘died of shame’ and the incident became infamously knows as the ‘deadly prank call’. The media instantaneously spun the story in a way that directly linked the hoax call with the reason the nurse had committed suicide. The reporter on Australian current affairs program Today Tonightperfectly exemplifies the media’s manipulation of the event in her statement, “how much the prank had to do with that death is open to conjecture”, straight after describing it as the “prank call that had such tragic consequences”.

In what is seemingly an attempt to cover their own backs, the hospital responsible for accepting the call has certainly not been shy in enhancing this absurd link, stating that Saldanha was a ‘victim of a cruel trick’. Royal College of Nursing chief executive Dr Peter Carter said it was “deeply saddening that a simple human error due to a cruel hoax could lead to the death of a dedicated and caring member of the nursing profession“.

Firstly, this so called ‘cruel trick’ had no malicious motivations, and was designed to be an obvious, harmless joke. Secondly, Saldanha ‘is understood to be the nurse who answered the call, then, believing she was talking to members of the royal family, transferred it to a duty nurse on the duchess’s ward’ – the nurse had thus merely put through the call; she had not actually been directly subject t the main content of the hoax. Finally, the only reason this incident, both the prank call and the suicide, made the news is because it revolved around the nation’s precious Duchess of Cambridge. The purpose of this piece is not in any way whatsoever to undervalue the death of an individual – it is to highlight the cruel manipulation of the media, as they sensationalised a woman’s suicide purely because it was in relevance to royalty.

The Australian radio hosts were merely doing their job, and whilst they had absolutely no intention of committing what is now being called ‘manslaughter’, they should in no way be forced to live with ‘unbelievable regret’ for this woman’s death, quite simply because they did not cause it. What we have witnessed over these past weeks and continue to, is how irrelevant correlations can be easily over exaggerated and exploited by the media. BBC news involvement in this over exaggerated sensation is ironic, considering less than a month earlier they published an article highlighting how ridiculousl correlations can be constructed.

The media may be the culprits who stirred the trouble, but it is the general public who are happily being spoon fed it, swallowing it and regurgitating it with hateful means. The craze and obsession with the royals has gone too far, as it absolutely unacceptable for the Kate and Wills fan base to antagonise the radio hosts in defense of their beloved Duchess of Cambridge. It is shocking to hear about the surge of death threats and allegations that Greig and Christian have received, including being accused of having ‘blood on their hands’. Whilst their careers are now irreparably tainted, more detrimentally is the expectation for them to accept the blame for this woman’s suicide and thus suffer from tremendous guilt.

The media are accountable for starting this unjust witch-hunt, and many impressionable, naive members of the population are guilty of fueling it. The saddest thing about this whole episode, is it is very likely that the anger derives not from the death of Jacintha Saldanha, but from those who are outraged that the royals were the subject of a hoax.

An innocent joke may have preceded a fatal incident, but ultimately the only cruel trick being played here, is by the media.


Photo Credit: Todd Huffman

Unrestricted Access To The Online Jihad

If our attempts at fighting the global jihad and combating violent radicalisation online are to be successful, students and academics must be allowed to conduct primary research free from the fear that trawling the jihadist websites and reading al-Qaeda magazines may one day put them in front of a judge.


classified document redacted downgraded top secret


It was recently brought to my attention that under Section 58 ‘Collecting Information’ in the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act of 2000 it is considered an offence for anyone in the UK – including counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation students, academics and practioners – to download and possess documents or records, like al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, which contain ‘information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. This, along with the recent row about NYU students planning hypothetical terrorist attacks for a counter-terrorism class and  general concerns over increased monitoring of online traffic  may lead some students of terrorism and counterterrorism – likely our future academics and counterterrorism practioners- in the UK and elsewhere to fear that they may end up being investigated, unable to find work, or worse, the subject of an arrest as result of their internet search activity and the questionable content in their hard drives. These fears stifle academic freedom, limit experimentation in online data collection methods, and ultimately drive students, academics, and future practioners away from the work necessary to fully understand the complexity of our contemporary threat environment.  Students and academics should not have to fear that one day they won’t be able to obtain the security clearances necessary for employment, nor should they fear that their online activity will result in arrest and subsequent questioning by authorities. In contrast to discouraging students from visiting these forums, I believe future academics and counter-terrorism practioners should be given free reign to conduct research by visiting websites, watching videos, and downloading materials that promote global jihadist frames and violence against the West.

With online radicalisation becoming a more immediate concern, coming into contact with jihadist materials and online supporters of the global jihad is critical to improving our understanding of processes that move individuals from angrily ranting behind their keyboards to planning and executing terrorist attacks in the West. Academics, like Jarret Brachmann, have led the way, conducting research in pro-jihadist chatrooms and analysing al-Qaeda media products for years. Henry Severs and Jill Hallgren, both staff members of, represent a growing number of burgeoning academics gleaning insight from online sources in a manner similar to that of sociologists conducting research on social movements. Hallgren, for example, recently published an analysis of online reactions to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens from two popular Islamist forums. In her analysis, Hallgren found four general themes of consensus among forum participants:

  1. Ambassador Stevens was not innocent
  2. The American government; and, by extension, its citizens are hypocrites
  3. American muslims and ‘Westernized’ muslims are sickening
  4. The assassination of J. Christopher Stevens and the release of “Innocence of Muslims” may be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, for some Muslims.

While the general trends teased out by Hallgren don’t tell us who may plan or execute an act of terrorism, they do give us important insight into the process of consensus formation taking place on Islamist forums and help us identify emerging frames within Islamist discourse among forum participants. With further analysis, Hallgren and others may be able to identify moderate frames on Islamist forums that can be used to counter the extremist frames that play a role in moving online forum participants towards offline violence.

Severs’ research on the internet as a source of violent radicalisation led him to al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Severs highlights the role of the internet in facilitating the growth of insular communities relatively free from critical introspection and the ‘checks and balances of normative behavioural conduct’ imposed by society. These echo chambers can lead users to under go a ‘risky shift’ adopting  extremist views and violent prognostic frames.  Like Hallgren, the work done by Sever points to areas of research on radicalisation in dire need of attention and highlights the need to counter radicalisation in these online ‘enabling environments’

It is essential for policy-makers to understand that neither Brachmann, Hallgren, nor Severs could have conducted their research without visiting Islamist websites or reading jihadist materials online. Unlike the afformentioned sociologists, who immerse themselves in the physical milieux of social movements, academics and students researching terrorist organisations have little to no access to the actors they wish to observe; sometimes the only recourse is to turn online.  These kind of firsthand observations are necessary if students and academics are to familiarize themselves with the archipalego of jihadist propaganda websites and online forums, which now constitute a great source of information for Western Islamists sympathetic to the global jihad. Western governments should identify university departments engaged in the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism, and create policies that allow them to conduct substantive online research with maximum academic freedom.  If our attempts at fighting the global jihad and combating violent radicalisation online are to be successful, students and academics must be allowed to conduct primary research free from the fear that trawling the jihadist websites and reading al-Qaeda magazines may one day put them in front of a judge or prevent them from finding employment in Western security services. Failure to do so greatly limits research opportunities, discourages innovative thinking, and relinquishes the online edge to our enemies.


Photo Credit: Restricted Data

Three Facts You Should Know About Intellectual Property

IP is here to stay. It will impact your life countless times before you even brush your teeth. It is not evil. It is a tool that is used both for and against the public interest.


intellectual property patent technology


I realized not long ago, to my own surprise, that I had worked in intellectual property for nearly two years. Intellectual property. A field dominated by corporate lawyers and too many consultancies to count. Considering the vast literature on intellectual property (IP) , there is little need for long introductions. Essentially, IP is when the state grants artificial monopolies to individuals to exploit creative work such as scientific innovations, films, music, books, trademarks and designs.

Though many industry professionals recoil in horror when they read IP and monopoly in the same sentence, this is effectively what IP is. We grant monopoly rights, so the argument goes, in order to foster incentives for the creation of works that benefit society. Society needs ideas. People have them. The state grants a monopoly right to stimulate their economic exploitation. Far be it from me to question this sacred tenant of the much heralded knowledge economy. Some have . But these few are frequently painted as the lunatic fringe of a well-oiled free market machine that awkwardly defends creating artificial monopolies via state intervention.

IP influences our lives every day. Though often portrayed as a complex legal matter best left to lawyers, nothing is further from the truth. IP is profoundly political. It is an immensely powerful legal construct that can be used to foster technological innovation, stifle competition, restrict access to medicine and remove your YouTube video all in the same breath. Considering that IP is now enforced globally via the WTO’s trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) clauses , some of its darker aspects should be known. The list is by no means exhaustive. Nor is it a call to arms to bludgeon your local patent lawyer. This list is, simply, a list of three facts to remember about IP.

1. We can accumulate patents without innovating.

With research and development (R&D) costs skyrocketing for new drugs and technologies, it is no surprise we have a patent system to reward innovators. Society benefits from innovations by facilitating their diffusion. Patents reassure innovators they will profit from this diffusion. Using patented technology without paying for it can result in astronomical fines. Think Apple vs. Samsung.

But what happens when someone can accumulate patents without innovating? Non-practicing entities (NPEs) accumulate patent portfolios in order to profit from infringement settlements and extract license fees. Derisively called patent trolls, NPEs have grown rapidly. NPEs sued less than 250 companies in 1998. By 2010, that number shot up to 2,600. Major NPEs like Intellectual Ventures own an estimated 10,000 – 15,000 patents. Some argue they aggregate rights to facilitate technology licensing. Yet, most of these companies contribute little to the economy except the dividends generated for shareholders from suing manufacturers.

2. We can patent biological organisms.

This concept received an enormous amount of press over the years. Reports suggest over 1/5 of human genes had been patented by 2005. Recent court decisions upheld that firms could patent isolated human genes. The same goes for seeds. Horror stories abound of farmers around the world being sued by companies like Monsanto for not paying license fees for crops they have been growing for generations. Patented seeds can produce higher yields and resist disease. But they can also be invasive and sterile.

Why not limit their reproductive lifespan to ensure farmers have to continue paying for legally protected seeds? The logic is devastatingly cruel and profitable. As powerful new gene sequencing techniques become increasingly cheap, there is no limit to the quantity of biological data that will transfer into private hands . There is opportunity for enormous medical progress. But at what cost?

3. We can centralize ownership of culture.

Copyright historically enabled corporations to accumulate vast repertoires of film, music and books. Take music: four companies – Universal, Warner, Sony, and EMI – control approximately 75% of the global music market. Pre-Internet, this situation was justified by reference to the investment necessary for production, distribution and marketing of content.

With communications technologies decimating these costs, one might expect a bright new future where the interests of a handful of corporations no longer drive the global supply of cultural content. Sure, the music industry is experiencing the rise of independent label market share. But don’t expect these cultural behemoths to go quietly into the night. End-user piracy litigation, digital rights management and centralized online distribution on platforms like the iTunes store shows the oligarchs are fighting hard.

Where We Stand

I have focused here on worrying aspects of IP and been extremely brief. I believe in IP. Artists should make money. Scientists should be rewarded for their discoveries. My patience runs thinner with companies that exploit the concept of corporations as legal individuals to accumulate huge patent, copyright and trademark portfolios. Enforcing their monopoly rights around the world, they increasingly influence how people create, transmit and experience cultural and scientific works.

Yet, new opportunities to promote public welfare using IP are on the rise. Open source software uses GNU GPL licenses to ensure all derivative software is free and open. Creative commons licenses protect artists’ rights while offering a greater scope of distribution and collaboration. These are just some of the more high-profile examples.

IP is here to stay. It will impact your life countless times before you even brush your teeth. It is not evil. It is a tool that is used both for and against the public interest. Yet, it is a property right justified with respect to social welfare. Let’s keep that in mind when we consider why and how we protect our ideas.


Photo Credit: Quapan 

Racism In Australian Media

Journalists in Australia need to report news in a fair and objective manner since their behaviours and beliefs influence public opinion. Media inciting violence and inaccurate portrayals of certain groups encourages xenophobic behaviours and reinforces stereotypes that are already established leading to intercommunal conflict.



Living in a multicultural society, the media plays a pivotal role in race relations and helps shape the way we view different cultures. Although we celebrate diversity, migrant communities and asylum seekers still fall victim to vicious racial vilification and discrimination in mainstream media.

Cronulla Riots and Radio 2GB

The notorious 2005 Cronulla Riots in Sydney is one of Australia’s worst ethnic tensions and this incident was an example of the media taking part in inciting violence. On December 4, two Cronulla beach life savers were attacked by a group of Lebanese men. In response, locals circulated text messages to organise a mass gathering on Cronulla Beach to reclaim their beaches and to fight for Australian pride. Around 5000 Australians, most of them of Anglo and Celtic descent, arrived. The crowd turned into a violent mob, riots occurred a week after the attacks and people of Middle-Eastern descent (or ‘Middle-Eastern’ appearance) were targeted.

Between 5-9 December, one week before the riots, Sydney Talkback Radio 2GB host Alan Jones took part in slurring people of Middle-Eastern descent. While presenting his Breakfast with Alan Jones program, many callers rang Jones to vent their revulsion towards Middle-Easterners while Jones was encouraging them.  One caller said “Get these blokes a bit of rifle butt in the face and they’ll, they’ll back off, they’re cowards!” Jones then replied; “Well if it gets to that we might have to do that, you follow what I’m saying?”

Jones also said “What kind of grubs? Well, I’ll tell you what kind of grubs this lot were. This lot were Middle-Eastern grubs. And you’re not allowed to say it but I’m saying it…” For more information on more of Jones’ comments, please click here.

In 2007, ACMA (Australian Communications Media Authority) launched an investigation into Jones’ broadcasts and produced an Investigative Report that found Jones’ comments “likely to encourage violence or brutality and to vilify people of Lebanese and Middle-Eastern backgrounds on the basis of ethnicity”. Thus the station and Jones were guilty of breaching their industry’s Code of Practice in encouraging hostility towards people of Middle-Eastern background.

Andrew Bolt’s Article on “Fair Skinned Indigenous Australians”

Andrew Bolt is a well-known columnist for the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun and he is infamous for his obnoxious commentaries. In 2009, Bolt published an article claiming that “fair skinned Indigenous Australians” exploit their Indigenous heritage for their personal, professional and financial gain. He wrote ”white Aborigines” were ”people who, out of their multi-stranded but largely European genealogy, decide to identify with the thinnest of all those strands, and the one that’s contributed least to their looks”. Before this, Bolt had published similar references such as “it’s so hip to be black” and “white fellas in the black”. Bolt, Herald Sun and Herald Sun’s publisher, Weekly Times, were sued by nine high profiled Indigenous Australians who testified they were offended and hurt by the comments. Subsequently, The Herald Sun and Bolt were accused of breaching racial vilification laws and in 2011, Bolt was found guilty of breaching Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Footy Show

Even entertainment television programs have had breached racial vilification laws before.  In 2009, Sam Newman the host of the popular AFL (Australian Football League) television program  The Footy Show  called a Malaysian man a “monkey” and “not long out of the forest”. ACMA launched an investigation and in 2010, Channel Nine was found guilty of breaching Section 1.8.6 of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice 2004 and Channel Nine was put on a $200,000 bond.  Despite this penalty, Newman remained defiant, stating that he wouldn’t change.

Asylum Seekers Coverage

Asylum seekers are also victims of unprofessional journalism. In 2010, a boat carrying asylum seekers had sunk at Christmas Island and Radio 2GB hosted a quiz for callers to guess the number of deaths.  A caller guessed 12 and the presenter Chris Smith zestfully exclaimed “12 is spot on!” and he rewarded the caller a book, movie pass and a DVD.

Earlier this year, men’s magazine Zoo issued a search for ‘Australia’s Hottest Asylum-Seeker’. The advertisement read ‘Are you a refugee not even the Immigration Minister could refuse? Then we want to see you!’ and “We’re looking for Oz’s hottest asylum seeker, so if you’ve swapped persecution for sexiness, we want to shoot you (with a camera – relax!)”. This triggered a public outcry; an online petition was started and gathered a total of 6,807 signatures calling for Zoo Magazine to apologise. As a result, Zoo Magazine published an apology.

CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) groups are often vulnerable to racist and negative portrayals in the media because many of them lack the capacity and resource to fight in legal battles against large media outlets. Limited CALD people in mainstream media, whether as journalists, editors, media personalities or board members of large media outlets also contribute to lack of representation and opportunities for CALD members to have a stronger public voice in society.

Journalists such as Andrew Bolt, who had been taken to court with a defamation case before the litigation case with the “fair-skinned Indigenous Australia” blog post, is still able to work as a journalist.  Secondly, although Sam Newman was found guilty of breaching racial vilification laws, he remains unrepentant and still continues to host The Footy Show. Their ability to continue to work in media shows that media laws and authorities in Australia need to be revised and reconsider to ensure that the rights of minority communities are protected.

It is important that we have journalists and media personalities to report and present in a fair and objective manner. If media personalities and journalists have committed severe defamation against certain communities, media authorities should command more power to revoke their journalism licenses or working in the media.  Many people look up to them as role models, and their behaviours and beliefs influence many people.  The media’s portrayal of migrant and Indigenous communities plays a key role in influencing our understanding of different cultural, linguistic and religious groups. A media which incites violence and inaccurate portrayals of certain groups encourages xenophobic behaviours and reinforces stereotypes that are already established, which will cause more rifts between different communities. One article on a newspaper or a broadcast on radio and television can make a significant difference in the image of people.

As racism happens in Australian media, there are bigger questions we need to reflect. Is racism deep-rooted in our society? Do we really accept people who come from different cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds? And based on how asylum seekers are portrayed and degraded, is there an underlying fear of newcomers?


Photo Credit: Newton grafitti